I’m still in awe at what additive technologies can accomplish, from creating alternative meats, automotive parts, shoe insoles, and surgical models, to giving faces to the lost. That is to say, they can be used for facial reconstruction, whether it’s putting a face to a long-dead historical figure or helping to solve a cold case. A few years ago, I wrote about a cold case in Ohio, not far from where I live, where 3D printing and facial reconstruction were used to help identify a deceased woman, and put her alleged killers behind bars. Since then, Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) has continued to use the technology, partnering with The Ohio State University to identify human remains. But now, the process has been improved to be a lot quicker, thanks to animation technology.
At a recent press conference in Stark County, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced these new advancements in forensic facial reconstruction.
“Our hope with this new technology is to give law enforcement and the public alternative images of unidentified persons to generate more leads and expand the possibilities of solving the case.”
Sometimes, when dealing with unidentified remains, all detectives have to work with is a skull, and that’s not even always fully intact. When DNA, dental records, tattoos, or identifying marks aren’t available, that’s when they call in someone like Sam Molnar, a forensic artist and intelligence analyst for BCI, to determine what the person looked like when they were alive.
Molnar said, “I liked to do art as a kid and I watched way too many crime shows as a kid. And I always wanted to do this.”
Relying on specialized training from the Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Florida, and using information from anthropologists, including estimated gender, age, and race, she helps create the heads and faces of these unidentified people, sculpting hair, facial features, and muscles out of clay on top of 3D printed copies of their skulls.
“So I’ve been to several trainings where I’ve learned how to do facial reconstruction from a skull. I just, I have like a book that I follow,” she explained at the press conference. “So there’s different, average tissue depth markers for different places in the skull. And then it’s also dependent upon like the crime scene report, the anthropology report.”
Getting this 3D printed copy used to be a fairly lengthy process, which required driving the skull to OSU’s Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, having it CT scanned, and then delivering that file to the Digital Union at OSU, which offers free 3D printing and laser cutting, meeting spaces, access to high-end audio and video studios and the Adobe Creative Suite, and more. But, the file that results from the CT scan contains a lot of data, which adds time to the process as well.
“I would take that CT scan file, which has a lot of information you don’t necessarily need for 3D printing— when you think about what’s on the inside of a skull, the inside of a mouth — things like that, that aren’t necessary for (Molnar) to have the outer skull to sculpt on. It would usually take some time between three days to a little over a week to print a skull because it is a slow process to do that level of detail,” explained Amy Spears, the Manager of the Digital Union.
Obviously, the longer it takes to get the 3D printed copy of the skull, the longer it takes to kick these cold case investigations into high gear. But now, BCI detectives are making breakthroughs in cases that have been unsolved for years, thanks to a partnership with two other people on the OSU campus: graphics researcher Jeremy Patterson, a former video game designer, and immersive designer and 3D animator Dean Hensley. They never dreamed they’d be using their talents for forensics, but are excited to help with something so important.
“It’s being able to take your skills and your abilities and use the time that you have to be able to do something that can really help people,” said Patterson.
Patterson and Hensley developed a computer program that uses a process called photogrammetry to build a scaled 3D rendering of almost any object, including human skulls. Before the software was developed, this process used to be much more lengthy and complex.
“Traditionally, this took specialized equipment, equipment that was expensive,” Patterson explained. “You had to specifically stage an object to go through this, and the object itself mattered.”
Now, their program only needs a series of iPhone photos, taken from several angles, to build the rendering.
Henley said, “Anybody that’s got a cell phone that has high-quality images, they can make a 3D object in minutes.”
Molnar doesn’t need to drive from the BCI lab to OSU anymore to scan a skull; now, she just snaps images of the specimens on her cell phone and sends them to Hensley and Patterson, who quickly make the 3D model. Their file has far less data than traditional CT scans, which means it takes much less time to print a copy of a skull on the Digital Union’s UltiMaker system and get the image out to the public.
Spears confirmed that the process can work, explaining that “some of the ones that we’ve printed that have been identified have been people who have been unidentified for decades.”
“Once we get it done, we get a bulletin together,” Molnar said. “We usually work with the local agency to put together some sort of press release, blast it out to the public, and hope that somebody recognizes this person and calls in a tip that allows us to identify them.”
This technology doesn’t just speed up the process of creating the 3D printed skulls, either. It’s also used to create photorealistic digital images of what these unidentified persons might look like.
“We can change factors unknown to investigators, like skin tone, eye color, facial hair, and hairstyle,” Yost explained. “We could also do an age progression in cases where investigators don’t have a precise age for the remains.”
At the press conference, Yost was also joined by Stark County Sheriff George Maier and Stark County Coroner Dr. Ron Rusnak, and together they revealed a forensic facial reconstruction of an unidentified man whose remains were found in 2001 in Canton. Authorities say the remains were completely skeletonized and may have been at that particular location for several years. He is believed to have been a Black man, between 5 feet 4 inches and 6 feet tall and between 21 and 44 years old. No clothing was recovered with the remains, and other identifying details, like eye color and weight, are unknown.
“He was found just a couple of months after the twin towers were struck on 9/11, that’s how long this person has been waiting to be identified. Somebody somewhere knows him. People loved him. We need to help provide them closure,” Yost said.
Maier said that “we owe it to the victims in our community” to figure out what happened to them, and hopes the reconstruction will help with identification.
“I will tell you that most good police officers will tell you there’s nothing better than boots on the ground,” he said. “People on the ground developing leads, but without this type of assistance, we would not be able to do our jobs.”
Without the use of advanced technologies like CT scanning, 3D printing, and photogrammetry, improvements like this in forensic facial reconstruction would not be possible.
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